Flying fingers and so much more

You think things get hurried on your mark roundings? The tactician aboard the new 98-foot Alfa Romeo at Hamilton Island Race Week (Hahn Premium Race Week) worried about seven-minute legs and four-minute setups for the windward-leeward courses in the middle of the seven days of racing. This on “a boat that’s just like any other boat, except that the people all look like ants.”

In the event, eleven-twelve minutes was more like it for the 3.5-mile downwind legs; still pretty short timing for something other than a collegiate dinghy. Alfa Romeo won the first IRC windward-leeward race and Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats (more below on Oatley) won the second.

The tactician in question would be Australian Etchells champion Michael Coxon of North Sails Sydney, who says that Neville Crichton’s new Reichel-Pugh designed CBTF machine is using the event in Australia’s Whitsunday Islands “as an exercise in commissioning; the boat is so complex that sailing it, this soon after launch, is secondary to allowing the technicians to have a go. At first you’re in the hands of the builders, listening for creaks and groans.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s anything less than a lot of sailing going on.

Coxon said during the Monday layday, “Our traveler man has become our cant expert; during race two I made a rule: the helmsman is not allowed to touch any buttons because when he’s pushing buttons he’s not steering. The guy trimming the keel must be as sensitive as the guy trimming the sail. And the twin rudders [one forward and one aft] are being trimmed as carefully as you would trim a sail. We’re most of us new to canting keels. This is a 98-footer that at first felt like a 120-footer, and it’s all teamwork because you cannot manhandle anything.”

Race week at Hamilton Island runs eight days, including the layday. In five of seven days, the featured race of the day is a scenic route around and between nearby islands. It’s been t-shirts and shorts weather, and these waters inside the Great Barrier Reef are flat and protected, so it’s no wonder that the 22nd race week has drawn 207 high tech racing boats and a passle of cruising yachts, including some from the local charter fleet.

The new Alfa Romeo has no real competition here, even in its pre-tuned state and with a limited (“we wanted to learn the boat before we over-committed on the sails”) inventory. There’s the sentimental favorite, George Snow’s maxi, Brindabella, but the one-time Sydney-Hobart winner and longtime campaigner is an early-IMS design and in her 11th Hamilton Island Race Week is no match for the latest carbon rocket.

Coxon, even so, has his hands full guiding Alfa Romeo around the course. In the two days of windward-leeward racing, he said, “We know we have to start on starboard, and we have to avoid stealing the wind of boats close to leeward. [Once Brindabella did that, and the boat to leeward stood straight up, with unfortunate results.] If the first shift goes left, big boats will do well. If the first shift goes right and we have to do extra tacks—we lose 30 seconds per tack—we have a hard time.

“I have to get my laylines right,” Coxon said, “and that’s hard because we’re sailing the apparent wind, and that’s changing, and I have to make the call from a long way out. It’s the same with sail maneuvers. You look way ahead and try to think, Where’s this thing going to be in two minutes? But on a big boat, whether a decision is right or wrong, you have to make the decision. You can’t keep going back to rethink.”

At the start of the earlier, 60-mile Edward Island Race, Alfa Romeo made multiple runs at one end of the line, telegraphing its intentions clearly. Coxon said, “Neville asked me if we should be showing everybody what our plan was, and I told him yes, absolutely; show everybody where we’re starting, and I guarantee you there won’t be anybody else there.”

Asked about an apparent spinnaker wrap during Race 2, Coxon said the situation was more complicated than that. In preparing for a gybe, a new line was passed the wrong way past a line in tension, and then the hydraulic winches sucked them both into the block and literally burned the two lines together. “The guys couldn’t get the lines apart; these winches feel no resistance.”

NOTE: In a press conference on Monday, Hamilton Island general Manager Wayne Kirkpatrick (who also races a Sydney 38 named Asylum, let it out that Bob Oatley, who used to come to Hamilton Island to race his boats, then decided to buy the island, and still races here to say the least—and has a 100-footer in build—has it in mind to bring the European Maxi fleet in via ship for a regatta in November.

If they bite, I suppose the next thing will be to convince them to stay on for Sydney-Hobart on Boxing Day . . .

—Kimball Livingston from Hamilton Island

Event web site: Hahn Premium Race Week

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